Last night I saw the film, Surviving Progress. Though many of the film’s points were ones I am aware of, its most important message was that debt is the driving force behind the world’s current economic, social & ecological crises. As apostate Wall Street bankers and IMF bureaucrats explained, debt is the force behind: destruction of the world’s most crucial ecosystems; poverty and social upheaval in developing countries; and the likely end of civilization as we know it.
In pre-capitalist societies, debt was owed to the state rather than private individuals, so when the burden of debt for most of its citizens became unreasonable, in the interests of avoiding revolution the rulers would forgive all debt, ride out the consequences & start afresh. With capitalism, however, debt has concentrated in the hands of 10% of the world’s private individuals, the financial oligarchy, and they do not have any interest in the health or even continuation of society as a whole. As a class they would rather destroy the planet than give up their self-interest.
Though the financial oligarchy has a great deal of power, those of us with surviving democracies do have the means to fight back through the political process. As Michael Moore says, “we’re a democracy – we can pass any laws we want!” Surviving Progress clearly advocates that we elect rulers willing to cancel debt in order to save civilization rather than the financial oligarchy.
The film reminded me of some drawings I did about 12 years ago on this theme. The drawings were in the form of bills for an organization called Artmoney, an international art project presenting a global, alternative currency: “Artmoney”. Artmoney is made of original art, by artists around the world. My contribution was in the form of drawings of 3 bills showing the evolution of a running man into corporate man – or the man who runs things.
The motto on each bill “This is the way the world will end” is an embarrassing misquote from the poem The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot. The final stanza may be the most quoted of all of Eliot’s poetry;
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
I also used this motto carved around the base of a piece called Special Cases in 1999. As described in more detail in my blog #6: On Corporate Power, this sculpture is about Running Man in his bureaucratic context – ensuring that the dominant paradigm – that economic demands must always take precedence over over social or ecological needs – prevails. This was the second version of the piece.
There was only one aspect of Surviving Progress that was weak and that was the comments on Economics. David Suzuki called Economics “a form of brain damage”, which is just silly.
It got a laugh and I can understand the temptation to ridicule a discipline that has been distorted and misused to serve the cult of consumerism. When arguably one of the worst Canadian Prime Ministers in history is an Economist, it besmirches the field. Yes, I would argue that Stephen Harper is even more deluded than MacKenzie-King, that other nasty Conservative who, when he wasn’t sending European Jews back to certain death, was communing with the spirit of his dear departed Mother.
But Economics is an intellectual discipline like any other, and the fact that it has been misused to serve nefarious ends does not negate it as a field of study. Every discipline can be applied to foul purposes or fair as evinced by the use of Physics to develop the atomic bomb, or Biology to develop GMO foods. As in all disciplines, it is the assumptions behind the thinking that result in a progressive or regressive outcome. When people refer disparagingly to Economics as the source of our current financial, social & ecological crises, they are referring to a more recent and highly influential Economic philosophy that is characterized as The Chicago School. As described in Wikipedia, Chicago macroeconomic theory rejected Keynesianism in favor of monetarism until the mid 1970s, when it turned to new classical macroeconomics heavily based on the concept of rational expectations. The Chicago School, which advocates for unfettered free markets and little government intervention , came under attack in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2010. The school has been blamed for growing income inequality in the United States. An alternative economic perspectivesuggests that the Chicago School economists are “the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.”
My father, the late Dr. Stuart Jamieson, was a an economist who applied his hard-won , on-the -ground knowledge to improving the lives of working people. As a Keynesian and Labour Economist, he supported the rights of workers to organize and improve their negotiating position with the owners of the means of production.
Like many progressives, Stuart Jamieson’s faith in the union movement was shaken by events in the early 1980’s in British Columbia. A draconian far-right Social Credit government, bent on removing the social safety net for everyone except those who didn’t need it, had managed to galvanize the many opposing factions into a unified force. But on the eve of a threatened general strike, union leader Jack Munroe struck a deal with the government that protected workers and left the poor, sick, disabled & otherwise disadvantaged to fight for themselves.
Disillusioned with the union movement and the potential for Economics to solve real-world problems, Jamieson turned to direct action. He joined the movement to save the old-growth forests in Clayquot Sound on Vancouver Island from timber harvesting and was arrested for blocking access to logging trucks. In his late eighties, he was fitted with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet and placed under house arrest at his home on Bowen Island.
Proto-Economist Karl Marx is described as one of the most influential figures in human history and in a 1999 BBC poll was voted the “thinker of the millennium” by people from around the world. He argued that accumulation of capital shapes the social system and that social change was about conflict between opposing interests driven, in the background, by economic forces. He theorized that human history began with free, productive and creative work that was over time coerced and de-humanised, a trend most apparent under capitalism. Marx criticised utopian socialists, arguing that small scale socialistic communities would be bound to marginalisation and poverty, and that only a large scale change in the economic system can bring about real change.
Clearly the discipline of Economics began as a tool for far-sighted, socially conscious thinkers but has been hijacked by regressive hacks who have provided a rationale for rule by the current financial oligarchy. So to characterize the study of how wealth is distributed as “brain damage” is to condemn a useful analytical tool because it has been misapplied. David Suzuki tries to amend his gaffe in the December issue of the local free magazine Common Ground. Their December issue responds to many of the issues raised in Surviving Progress and is one of their recent best.
In his article Suzuki suggests that Economics can address the narrow focus of the dominant economic model by putting a value on natural capital such as wetlands and forests. He reinforces this suggestion by noting that “These economic benefits have even received the attention of the World Bank, which plans to assist countries in tracking natural capital assets and including them in development plans, in the same way we track other wealth using the GDP index”. Yikes Dave! I bet they are tracking natural assets the better to turn them into wealth for transnational corporations.
As someone said, this is the idea of using capitalism to fix capitalism. It’s the preferred path for the faint of heart who want to tinker with the edges of the system but leave the system itself intact.
Other ideas in this ish of Common Ground are more practical. The article by by John Restakis, Beyond the Camps: Occupation and the Co-op Connection, provides a more practical approach to change that can be activated by ordinary people right now. John Restakis is executive director of the BC Co-operative Association and author of Humanizing the Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital. He advocates participation in the co-operative movement which has a long history in Canada. As he says, “we have the experience of 170 years of co-operation to see that the tenets of democracy can be applied to economics just as in politics and that they work. It is this heritage of economic democracy that is invaluable to the movement that so ardently seeks an alternative to the status quo”.
As examples he points to the survival rate of co-ops which is double that of conventional businesses. He highlights how credit unions, by responding to the actual needs of their members, didn’t engage in the fraudulent financial speculations that bankrupted the economy and had no need of massive public bailouts. He suggests that shifting our money from banks to credit unions is something concrete everyone can do. Co-ops reduce inequality on a global level because fair trade, based on the return of profits to small producers through their co-ops, isn’t based on the extraction of profit by exploiting the weak. And at a time of global economic recession, the experience of the recovered factory co-ops of Argentina, Uruguay and elsewhere shows how workers and the communities in which they live can take back control of shuttered factories and provide a living for workers and their families.
Forerunner to the current left of center BC political party, the NDP was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or CCF. Founded in 1932 in it was an aggregation of socialist, farm, co-operative and labour groups,with a number of goals, including: public ownership of key industries; universal pensions; universal health care; children’s allowances; unemployment insurance; workers compensation. It also stated that “No CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth.” In 1939 and again in 1941, my grandmother, Laura Jamieson, was the first CCF MLA elected west of Main Street in Vancouver Center. In 1944, the CCF formed the first socialist government in North America in Saskatchewan but during the Cold War, it was accused of having communist leanings. The party moved to address these accusations in 1956, by replacing its original goals with more moderate ones and paving the way to become the NDP.
The point is that BC has roots in the cooperative movement and this philosophy can provide an alternative to the capitalist system.